Skip to content
Feb 2 13

Spoiled

by vmbrasseur

Today…

Morning

  • Coffee (home roasted, naturally)
  • Catch up on the internet
  • Catch up on The Economist
  • Go for a run in the park
  • Weekly grocery shopping

Afternoon

  • Prep for tomorrow’s dinner party
  • Do dishes and clean the kitchen

Evening

  • Tidy dining room, living room, bedroom
  • Put away four pairs of shoes
  • Scrub bathroom
  • Change litterbox
  • Shower

I am so goddamned spoiled. Here I am, gainfully UNemployed, living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and taking it for granted.

We usually don’t realize how lucky we are. It’s sinking in for me.

Jan 30 13

Wherein the Author Does Not Understand

by vmbrasseur
Due to the topic of this post, I’ve bypassed the Informality Filter through which this text would normally have passed as it’s written. The text you see here truly is the way I thought it in my brain when composing. This is the style in which I hold my inner-dialogues on more serious matters. If you think this is bad, you should see my journal…

I’m currently working on a big project which involves a lot of writing. The other day I was discussing it with a friend over dinner. I mentioned that, for the most part, the only change needed to the first bit I’d completed was some formatting. He asked:

Doesn’t it slow you down to write correctly?

This stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s been a long time since a question baffled me as much as that one. I had enough time to stammer some sort of “Well, no, I don’t think so, really I just, um” answer before he changed the subject, so I didn’t really get the chance to consider the issue.

I was just thinking about his question again and am still completely flummoxed. To me it implies that it’s expected that the words which hit the page won’t be fit for human consumption, that what’s written will be ugly and incorrect according to English As She Is Spoke.

The thought that it might require additional time and effort to write grammatically correct prose would never have occurred to me and, even as I now consider it, is such a foreign concept that I cannot fathom that such a thing is possible.

I write how I think. These sentences you see before you are the same as the ones which run through my brain. If anything, the only filter they pass through on the way out is one to make them sound less formal and Edwardian than the way I actually think, lest everyone regard me as though I’d grown an extra head. My internal dialog does not split infinitives, does not end sentences with prepositions, does not dangle participles. That’s just the way I’m wired. The order inherent in my thought-sentences pleases me and, since much that I write is for my own benefit, it makes sense that my writing-sentences would be in a similarly self-pleasing style. Writing, for me, is very much a WITIWYG (What I Think Is What You Get) sort of operation.

Which is not to imply that writing is an easy endeavor. The organization of concepts and vocabulary is taxing. Of late my most weary evenings are those which follow a marathon session at the keyboard. The brain is a greedy organ, consuming an immense amount of energy and leaving one sapped of strength at the end. But to have additional processing power and speed required for crafting a correctly-structured turn of phrase? Before my friend’s question I’d not have thought it possible.

Another mental disconnect occurs when I consider that it’s likely that writing a grammatically correct sentence would actually slow down a large number of people. These are individuals who are grammatically correct in conversation, yet this ability must not translate to writing. Am I to understand that the correctness does not slow their speaking but does their writing? Is it because they over-think their writing, believing that they need to write in a style in which they do not normally think, therefore taking additional time in composition that they would not need in conversation? Good writing must read as though you are speaking with the author. To over-think the matter is to create a work unfaithful to yourself and deceptive to your reader. ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ, indeed, but then ΕΣΤΩ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ as well.

In truth, I do not understand and the matter now intrigues me. It is not possible to peer within the brain of another to understand the method she or he uses to think and to write. It is not possible to tease out the differences between the two and inspect them. One cannot project another’s process up on the wall and point–A ha! Just so! To wit!–at each element and compare it to one’s own.

And so, lacking data, I am left only with his question, the flotilla of questions which float behind it, and a newfound sense of curiosity for the paths each person takes with his words and how the paths differ by intended destination.

Jan 29 13

Pondering my shoes

by vmbrasseur

I spend a lot of time walking. Sure, I love my bike and I’ll even use public transport when necessary, but walking is my preferred mode of getting from place to place. Yes, it takes a little longer but to me it’s worth it.

Typically, when the weather allows (read: most of the year), I do my walking au natural, unshod, barefoot, even, falling back on Vibram Five Fingers if barefoot ain’t gonna cut it for some reason. But sometimes a gal’s just gotta wear shoes, and if you’re gonna do it you may as well do it right. Soon after I moved to San Francisco I shelled out about $150 for a really nice pair of Josef Seibel walking shoes.

As shoes go, these are pretty great. They’re comfy, they’re sturdy, they fit well and they look pretty good. Yay. I’m a fan. During the winter months, when it’s too cold for bare feet, I can be found tromping all over the city in these things. We’ve logged many a mile together, these shoes and I.

Lately, though, they’ve started to look a bit dingy. The lovely brown color was wearing off in places. I was starting to become self conscious when I wore them, believing people must look at my shoes and think me a slob. In truth it’s unlikely anyone even noticed my shoes, but that didn’t stop me from feeling uneasy.

One day, while sitting on my bed, I pondered what to do about my poor bedraggled shoes. Yes, I sat and pondered about my shoes. It’s not so odd a pastime. Some people juggle geese. I ponder my shoes. Work with me, here.

Anyway, so there I sat, pondering. I’m rather ashamed at how much of that pondering was required for me to come to the conclusion that perhaps my footwear would benefit from some basic maintenance.

Like any good geek, I started by hitting the search engine to see what the internet had to say about the matter. It seemed, from my research, that all that was really needed was a little shoe polish and a few minutes of my time. Well. OK then. That seems simple enough.

A quick jaunt to a shop up the street provided the necessary supplies. Polish, applicator brush, shining brush. Grabbing my shoes and an old cotton kitchen towel from the closet, I sat down and set to work.

Pick up shoe. Brush on the polish. Brush brush brush. Not too thick, just cover everything a little. Set shoe down. Repeat with other shoe. Check Twitter while the polish dries. Pick up shoe. Buff off the polish. Buff buff buff. Set shoe down. Repeat with other shoe. Wipe down with the towel. Wipe wipe wipe. Sit back. Admire shoes.

I had discovered the Shoe Fountain of Youth. While they certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for new, they would no longer be seen as scruffy, either. The color had returned to the toes and heels and each shoe had a lovely mat sheen to it.

Acquiring and using my own shoe shining materials made me feel very anachronistic, but in a responsible sort of way. It’s as though I had joined the small but stalwart community of people who actually give a damn about their possessions, who take the time to maintain and mend them rather than simply wear them out and toss them aside. And that made me feel good. I spent a lot on these shoes and they do many good things for me. It’s proper that I should take the time to care for them. I feel we, as a consumer society, have really lost something here. We’ve lost the pride in ownership; the pride in doing things for ourselves; the pride in pondering our shoes.

Jan 17 13

Ragù Bolognese

by vmbrasseur

Pasta Bolognese and Kale salad

Pasta Bolognese and Kale salad

Ragù Bolognese is, in my opinion, the reigning king of pasta sauces. Sure, there are other splendid ways to dress a noodle, but to me none are as decadent as this slow cooked meat sauce. This is a flavor which could never come from a jar. It is special enough that I’ve only made it two or three times, including today.

And when I say “special enough” what I mean is “Holy Emmenthaler, but this takes forever to cook.” From start to finish, today’s batch took eight and a half hours of prep and cook time. This is a dish you make when you’re already planning to spend all day indoors. Thankfully I work from home (my keyboard a mere four or five feet from the stove) allowing me to devote the time today.

Bolognese research materials

Bolognese research materials

I did a lot of research before buying the ingredients for my Bolognese. What I learned is that I don’t like most of the recipes available, either in my book collection or on the web. Some were all beef (wrong). Some didn’t include vegetables (wrong). Some were primarily tomatoes (wrong). All of them made too little (wrong).

The thing is, if you’re going to spend over eight hours making something like this, you may as well make a lot. This is a dish which takes the same amount of time for a double batch as for a single, so why not just go large from the start? Bolognese freezes remarkably well, so eight hours now will provide you will meals for weeks to come.

The recipe here is one of my own devising and is pre-scaled to a double batch. Halve it if you wish, but frankly I can’t imagine why you would.

Equipment

  • A large, heavy pot with a tightly fitting cover. I used a 7.25 quart Le Creuset Dutch oven. A 5.5 quart Dutch oven may work as well.

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 oz prosciutto, pancetta or bacon, chopped fine or ground
  • 2 lg carrots, grated
  • 2 lg celery ribs, diced fine
  • 1 lg onion, diced fine
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 lb ground veal
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 2 28oz cans whole plum tomatoes, drained
  • 2 cups meat stock (chicken, beef, pork, whatever), preferably homemade
  • 2 cups whole milk

Method

  1. Heat the olive oil in your large pot. When it’s very hot, add the vegetables and prosciutto. Cook until the vegetables are very soft.
  2. Add the beef, pork and veal to the pot and cook until it’s browned.
  3. Add the wine. Simmer uncovered until most of the liquid is evaporated.
  4. Crush tomatoes (it’s easiest just to use your hands)) then add them and the stock to the pot.
  5. Cover the pot and cook on low for at least 3 hours, stirring occasionally.
  6. Remove the top and cook until much of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce has thickened (this may take another 90 minutes).
  7. Add salt to taste.
  8. Add the milk and simmer uncovered for another hour, stirring occasionally.
Jan 14 13

More crackers

by vmbrasseur

This afternoon I was standing in my kitchen preparing a snack of crackers and cheese (and sriracha). Surveying the munchables laid out on the counter I thought, “Do I need more crackers?” and was instantly transported.

The scene is set maybe thirty years ago, around the family dinner table. We’re eating chili or soup or some dish which was usually accompanied by crackers in our home. I say to Dad, “Can I have more crackers?”

“You want more crackers?”

“Yeah. Can I have more?”

“OK, you can have more.”

He then took a cracker from the crinkly cracker tube, placed it on the table, and brought his fist down onto it like a hammer. Sweeping the crumbs toward me he said, “There you go. Now there are more of them.” Or he tried, anyway, since he was so taken with his joke that he could barely talk through his laughing. His eyes were all squinched up from the laughter so he probably couldn’t see the dirty look I’m sure I must’ve been giving him.

At the time? I was unamused.

Now? Now I kinda want to try it on someone else.

Jan 11 13

Inked

by vmbrasseur
Tattoo of Rassilon

No, it’s not henna

“Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is skin-deep and unalterable.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

If you’ve seen me at any time since mid-May of 2012 you already know this but it may come as a surprise to others: I now have a tattoo.

No, this is not some sort of mid-life crisis thing. It’s not a “You just turned forty” rite of passage. I’ve wanted one for a while but needed to be one hundred percent sure that the tattoo I got was one I’d like for, well, ever. I was finally one hundred percent sure, so back in May I set up the appointment and took the plunge.

The design I finally selected is the Seal of Rassilon. I chose it first and foremost because I am a Whovian but, secondarily, because I believe it’s a lovely design in its own right. So while it acts as a way for me to locate fellow members of my geek tribe of choice—as they are the only ones who will recognize it—it also just looks good to the “normals.”

A Knob Creek Manhattan

Liquid Courage

As for the location, I’d never pictured anything but the top of my foot, even before I’d decided what I wanted. Yes, before you ask, it did hurt. It hurt like bloody hell. The process felt very much like how I’d imagine it would feel if someone were carving into your foot with a small knife, which isn’t too far from the truth. Despite that, I didn’t flinch once and I’m very proud of that fact. Though I suppose the Manhattan I downed just before showing up for my appointment may have contributed to that bravery…

My artist, Joe at One Shot Tattoo, is a great, kind, funny and skillful man. I pelted him with questions all through the process and he was brilliant, answering them all with details galore. He had reservations about the design. No, that’s not accurate. He had reservations about the fact that I didn’t want the design outlined in black. He warned me that the design may not be as sharp but I was resolute and he was up for the challenge. The skin of the foot is difficult to work with and doesn’t like to take ink, so I’ve been back twice since May to get touchups on the places where the ink was forced out. I wasn’t going to post photos until it had settled down and was complete. It finally qualifies, so now it can be unveiled to the world.

Finished product

Finished product

Seven months on I have to say: I’m well pleased. Most of my year is spent barefoot, toting shoes in my bag should I need to pop into a restaurant, so I get to look at my tattoo all the time. I love seeing it. I love getting compliments on it. I love best when someone recognizes it, points, and exclaims, “OMG! You have a Seal of Rassilon on your foot!”

I joke “My next tattoo will be ‘No It’s Not Henna’ in a circle around this one.” It’s the first question most anyone asks when they see it. “Wow! Is that henna?” I quietly sigh then take a breath and—for the twentieth time—explain that, no, it’s not henna. It’s real.

Jokes aside, would I do it again? Yeah, I think I would. It’s not a cheap habit to pick up, I gotta say, but if I think of something else I’d like this much and I have the cash lying about then I’d be glad to do it. After all, I do have another foot…

You can see in-process photos by clicking on any of the images above.

Dec 30 12

Hario Drip Pot and a Coffee Ritual

by vmbrasseur

Hario Drip PotLast week I pulled out my pile of filing, sorting it into Keep, Shred, Recycle piles. During that process I stumbled upon an old unused Williams-Sonoma gift card. I can’t recall when I received it but it must’ve been at least two years ago. In California it’s illegal to expire a gift card, so I didn’t have to go use it yet, but I felt like taking a walk. The closest Williams-Sonoma is downtown in Union Square, giving me a destination and a purpose.

It’s been years since I was in a Williams-Sonoma store. My kitchen is already stocked all the tools, gadgets and doodads required for all my cooking purposes. The only thing I’d like to have—a tea scale—isn’t offered there. So I wandered the four-floor shop for almost an hour, listening to Star Talk while trying to find anything which I could actually use. Eventually I found myself at the coffeemaker section and my eyes landed on this tiny drip pot. I was powerless against it and fell very deeply in smit with the adorable little thing.

Let’s be very clear here: I DO NOT need another method for brewing coffee. I already have:

That said, I was seduced by this tiny drip pot. It was slightly more than the value on the gift card, but it was also a floor model so it would be 10% off. I could rationalize that purchase.

The pot in question is a 480ml Hario Drip Pot. It has a wooden handle and a reusable muslin filter. It’s small enough that a single pot fills my favorite mug, which is more than I can say for my beloved Aeropress.

The kettle went on as soon as I got home this afternoon. Normally I wouldn’t have coffee this late in the day but this was a special occasion. New toy! New toy! I do love me a new toy.

For the past year and change I’ve been roasting my own coffee (a post for another day, that). This has ruined me for all other coffees. As if I weren’t snobbish enough, in the past month I’ve started weighing the ingredients for my morning brew. It’s become quite the ritual. While there are several steps in there, the basic version is: 15g unground beans, 250ml 200F° water, Aeropressed with a press time of around 30 seconds.

This new pot would need a new brew ritual…

  • 30g of unground coffee beans (Ethiopia Bedele Sota Cooperative roasted to Full City)
  • Grind in my Hario Skerton hand-crank burr mill grinder then add to the filter
  • Heat 500ml of water to my usual preference of 200F° in my Breville variable-temperature kettle
  • Once the water is hot, pour about 50g over the dry grounds and let it sit for about a minute to allow the grounds to bloom (read: foam up). While it varies by bean, my home roasted beans usually bloom like mad, releasing a lot of carbon dioxide and causing a large amount of foam. Without this bloom step most of my coffee makers will overflow from the foam and make a colossal mess.
  • Stir the bloomed grounds, breaking down the bubbles which have formed, then add half of the water.
  • Stir the grounds as the water drains through. When it’s all drained, add the rest of the water.
  • Coffee’s done.

This method worked brilliantly. The coffee was smooth, rich, full of body and not at all bitter. It may even be as good as what I get from my Aeropress, which is high praise indeed. So, while I didn’t neeeeeeed a shiny new coffee maker, I’m very glad that I splurged and got one. I love this little thing.

Dec 11 12

Hooking up external monitor is killing wifi on my MacBook (aka: GAH!!1!)

by vmbrasseur

Yesterday I turned off the MacBook, set the iPhone to airplane mode and sat down to get some serious work done.

At a certain point it was time to turn on the computer again and capture in digital what I’d written in analog. Surprise! The wifi isn’t working on the MacBook! It’s 100% fine on the iPhone and the iPad but the MacBook? No dice. The MacBook is connected to my wifi network but all connections time out and die. It also no longer sees any of the many other networks in my neighborhood. It’s like it’s a zombie connection: it looks like it’s alive but it’s really not.

In truth it had been on the fritz just before I shutdown the MacBook. It had been fine in the morning when I’d been using the laptop from the sofa then crapped out right as I hooked it up to get work done. That was annoying but I figured it’d just come back the next time I booted up.

After a quick trip to the hardware store to get an ethernet cable[1] I plugged the MacBook directly into the router. That worked fine, so I started applying all of the system updates that were pending.

That didn’t work as expected. At some point the App Store[2] completely wedged, requiring a force quit. That, in turn, left the system in a bizarre state such that most apps wouldn’t function. This led to me having to do a complete reinstallation of Mountain Lion.[3]

There. The wifi is now back. All is right with the world. The MacBook went to the sofa with me, where it normally stays in the evenings.

Today everything was fine first thing in the morning from the sofa. Again wifi crapped out just as I’ve moved the MacBook to the daytime workspace. That can’t be a coincidence.

Again plugged directly into the router. Again applied system updates (this time without the App Store wedging). Again rebooted. Again the wifi returns.

This time I started up a ping to google.com and left it running while I moved the MacBook to the daytime workspace and plugged in the external monitor. Here’s what I saw:

A ping to Google

The results of the ping to Google.

If you’ve ever used ping you can very clearly see where the MacBook stops being able to reach google.com. That’s the exact same moment when I plugged in the external monitor. Right after I stopped the ping the wifi died completely.

Frankly, this all perplexes the hell out of me. I’ve been using this setup for months now. Nothing has changed. I hadn’t updated or installed any new software or system updates. I hadn’t made any hardware changes. Nada. Things just suddenly decided to stop playing nicely together in the sandbox.

To say this is inconvenient would be an understatement.

Now that I know what the problem is I can start researching to see why it happens and whether there’s any way to fix it. I really don’t want to go to the Genius Bar if I can help it.

In a word: HARUMPH.


[1]: Seriously? I didn’t have an ethernet cable lying about here?! What the hell? Where did all the damn things go?! Back to reading
[2]: I honestly loathe this program. It’s ugly and bloated and most of the times I’m forced to use it something goes wrong. Now all system updates must come through it, which just pisses me off. Back to reading
[3]: Kudos to Apple for allowing a reinstall of the operating system without also requiring a reinstall of every other app or loss of the user data. That made the day almost tolerable. Almost. Back to reading

Dec 9 12

Long time no see

by vmbrasseur

We walked to the farmers’ market. Few things grabbed us until the seafood booth. Fresh. Very fresh. One could even call it “dead fresh,” if that didn’t sound like a contradiction in terms. Mmm…seafood…

We all spent most of the afternoon drinking wine, playing with the cats and talking talking talking about the things which we used to talk about before we left to our new places. It was open and comfortable. It was missed.

And then we cooked. Veg, stock, wine, herb, seafood seafood seafood. Aioli. Arugula. Simple and therefore amazing. More wine. More talk. Psychology! SciFi! Design! Marketing! Intelligent and challenging.

Then leaving. Pack up the leftovers. Pat the cats. Hugs and kisses (three times!) all around. Lock the door behind you. Now it’s quiet in the apartment again.

We really need to do this more often.

Nov 30 12

Multigrain Congee (aka Jook)

by vmbrasseur

The rain started sometime after midnight and didn’t stop until sometime in the afternoon. The day was grey and dreary, but at least it wasn’t too cold. Still: dreary. It was a day which called for comfort food, so I decided to try my hand at making congee.

The most basic congee couldn’t be simpler to make: take some rice, add a bunch of water, simmer until you have mush. Voila! Congee! Perhaps not the tastiest thing but warming. Traditionally it’s a Chinese breakfast food but there’s no reason that—like bacon and coffee—you shouldn’t have it any ol’ time of day.

I wanted my congee to be a bit more three dimensional than just rice and water as well as being a bit more nutritious. A little web research showed that multi-grain congee was a real thing so that’s the route I opted to take. I also added some moth beans because I had them on hand. Lentils would work just as well. Really, the main factor of this recipe was “use what you have.” It worked out quite well.

This takes a while to make but if you’re just going to be around the house anyway… If you’d rather it were 100% unattended, various sites on the web suggest a slow cooker for making congee.

The recipe makes 4 large bowls of congee or 3 very large bowls of congee or 2 you’re-really-not-going-to-eat-all-that-are-you bowls of congee.

Gear

  • 4-5 quart pot

Ingredients

  • one Cornish game hen or a few chicken thighs/legs
  • 1/3 cup brown rice
  • 1/3 cup white rice
  • 1/3 cup toasted kasha, barley or some other whole grain
  • 1/3 cup moth beans or lentils
  • Things for garnish (soy sauce, scallions, etc.)

Method

  • Put the hen or chicken bits in the pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil then simmer for about 90 minutes.
  • Remove the fowl ingredient and set aside to cool. Congratulations, you just made chicken stock.
  • Add the grains and beans to the stock. Bring to a boil then reduce to a very low simmer for about 1.5-2 hours. Stir occasionally to keep things from sticking. During this time the grains and beans will break down and become mushy and soupy.
  • Once the hen/chicken has cooled, remove the skin and separate the meat from the bones. Keep the meat for using to garnish the congee.
  • When it reaches the consistency you want, ladle into bowls. Garnish with whatever you wish. The congee will be bland on its own so you’ll want to load this up with tasty things like chicken, soy sauce, onions, garlic, ginger, etc. This is pretty wide open. Use what you have and what you like.

Yeah, that’s it. Use whatever combination of grains and beans you have/want, just make sure the total amount used doesn’t exceed 1.5 cups or the congee will end up too thick. Unless you like that. To each their own.